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Album Review:

Sufjan Stevens

The Greatest Gift

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words by maria sledmere

When the internet first sluiced through the mountainous ranges of the music industry, it made extra room for wayfarers, trailblazers, collectors of signs and wonders. Among these mercurial channels you could share the remainders shaved from a finished artwork, sparks that adorned an album’s aura. My own adolescence was spent lurking in forums where ardent fans traded concert bootlegs, remixed curios, covers and demos with a special brand of illicit joy. Years later I find myself still on the range, looking for vistas among those dizzying heights, chasing music that takes my breath away—music I never expected. Music that illumines, seduces, then is somehow destined to forever extinguish, to never quite reach fulfilment. Virginia Woolf puts it better than I can: ‘a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed’; a moment prolonged in its aching blush, a pressure which eludes completion.

Occasionally there’ll be a beautiful alcove, a cleft in the cliffs of existence in which to dwell awhile, reflecting on the maddening chiasmus of beauty and death. Sufjan Stevens’ album, Carrie & Lowell, was just such an alcove, a sliver of world-changing requiem. A place to confront reality’s brittle terrains, textures which glint stunningly in the sun and expunge with barely a whisper. A place where the needle runs over the endless quotidian, picking up tracks and strains where banality glitches and moments of reverie leave their residue gleaming. Stevens’ new record, The Greatest Gift, is a tribute to the lone rangers: those who linger in the aftermath of an avalanche, picking over the gorgeous revelations of snow and song, the debris of time and change. It’s a love letter to Oregon, an exploration of life, death and love, both sequel and prequel to his 2015 aforementioned masterpiece. A companion, also, to the recent audiovisual release, Carrie & Lowell Live, it forms a trove of rare outtakes, remixes and demos from the original. Returning from the maximalist swoons of this year’s collaborative effort, Planetarium, The Greatest Gift settles us into winter through its pared and subtle landscapes: it’s Carrie & Lowell with stray twinkles of distant lights; the panoramic, almost Biblical shivers of an extended mythology.

Opening track, ‘Wallowa Lake Monster’, plunges us into the celestial sublime that lifts Carrie & Lowell’s story of heartbreak, despair and death momentarily out of its earthly tragedy. Telling the “story of Wallowa Lake”, Stevens weaves its monstrous legend alongside the “story of my mother’s fate”. Soft-plucked arpeggios form a familiar comforting veil, through which silvery harmonies, choral interludes and Miltonian strains of brass reveal his mother’s human plight against the epic scale of Stevens’ memorialising: “when the dragon submerged we knew she had died”. In the two and a half years since Carrie & Lowell’s release, its braided tales have accumulated a gossamer mythology, a story of complex proportions that merges the personal and archetypal. ‘Wallowa Lake Monster’ feels like a soaring return to that heavenly place where memory settles, if ever too briefly. Where the initial narrative is breathily intimate, the song closes on a spacious, transcendent atmosphere that cements its tale in spirit: dusting us with wonders to come, an irresistible interlude between now and ever, the here and elsewhere. By the end of track one, death has already met marrow, truth imbued in fiction. “As we wait for the waters to reside”, we hold our breath, anticipating the release of those shining, exquisite sequins of sound…

It might be a mixtape of sorts, a less cohesive assemblage of extras, but the title directs to what the record does in abstract. The Greatest Gift delivers in full those liminal moments where pleasure can be plucked from sorrow, where something pure escapes the derangements of everyday living. It shares the treasures of survival, of empathy, grace and confession. On ‘Exploding Whale—Doveman Remix’, Stevens sings of his “wild ambition”, his intentions and inventions, against a swirling tide of regret: “my addiction / spoils my affection / for everything good”. The message is one of catharsis: “embrace the epic fail / of my exploding whale”. Amid chthonic bleeps and hollow harmonies, the whale emerges as a shadowy, amorphous figure for all we repress, consenting to illusion and the cheap comforts of fury instead. In the layered build of notes stretched across darkening horizons and fading apparitions, Stevens asks: “what of a dream deferred?” The revelation of failure’s embrace comes cleanly as genuine relief, preparing us for a return to the melancholic catacombs of Carrie & Lowell.

Subsequent tracks on The Greatest Gift allow us to linger in the possibility of this dream. ‘The Hidden River of My Life’, introduced so casually with a spoken “3, 4”, unfolds as a typically off-kilter slice of country-plucked Americana. In the opening verse, Stevens asks: “suppose the world was not informed by real estate or power-lines?” The hidden river of autobiography twines its meandering, shapeshifting way through society by collecting sign and symbol, little “candy corn” fragments found by the spirit: tree-houses, schemers, pioneers in the supermarket. The melody is almost jaunting. Lyrically, the song oscillates between rising tides and awakening souls, coalesces in a chorus where Stevens becomes the Everyman, embracing this work-hard distortion of American nostalgia as both worker, banker, beaver, barefoot walker, lover, driver, trucker, Safeway shopper. What might sympathise with twee becomes tongue-in-cheek musing at the sheer beauty and absurdity of contemporary America—its mixed-up ideologies offered up here as a strange and charming melting pot. In a way, Stevens is completely serious in his transformative rapture. Cheerful banjo provides the upbeat backdrop for a Barthesian array of everyday semiology, before we are launched into abyssal, orchestral strains which signify a movement beyond this material everything. Glutted on a society outlined as a series of roles and goods and actions, Stevens asks us to imagine a universe of beyond, the starry refrains unbound from their structures of order, money and power.

‘City of Roses’ has the arboreal, religious quietude of Seven Songs, but takes its plaintive reflections to a more rapturous, energetic place: “a break in the clouds is a break in my day / face the sun of my salvation”. The arrangements are simple and perfect, a love song for Portland and a tribute to the hope Stevens finds there. I can’t help thinking of the yellow brick road from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or Elliott Smith’s ‘Rose Parade’. But where Smith’s bittersweet rendition can only be “some half-hearted victory song”, a submission of the self to the waste of the world, Stevens finds loftier reverie in the city’s bright trash, its curious allure. At once “the champion of repression” and the dove who might “die by the wings of my ambition”, feeling suddenly old he follows “the light to the City of Roses”. It’s a paean to where life takes us, and where we might lead ourselves from the wake of an uncertain darkness. A reminder that sometimes we need to leave, to love what we’ve lost; to miss something so deeply we can hardly recall its form, apart from sudden sunlight on a dreary day, the drag of some other journey.

Amid these original songs, snow-globe glimpses into refracting inward universes, Carrie & Lowell demos and remixes are sprinkled like jewels. A particular beauty is the ‘John My Beloved’ iPhone demo. The eagle-eyed will notice with an editor’s interest subtle lyric changes: “I read you for some kind of stone” in the demo becomes “poem” in Carrie & Lowell; in the iPhone demo of ‘Carrie & Lowell’ “such a long time ago” becomes “summertime long ago.” The warmly muffled metronome thumps of the polished ‘John My Beloved’ are stripped back to soft-strummed guitar, the comforting white noise of a raw recording. The song’s story describes a delicate love pulled apart by the realisation that the other’s love is dead, their reciprocation simulated; leaving a fossil scored with lines instead of a person full-fleshed in feeling. What’s left is the hollow of someone else’s ribs, their “beautiful face”; a place to slip into pretence as one conjures desire between the lines: “there’s only a shadow of me / in a matter of speaking I’m dead”. The hushed fragility of Stevens’ voice suits this transition between fierce love and the ripostes of innocence, an affair salvaged by friendship: “so can we be friends / sweetly before the mystery ends”. Such heartbreak moves from the personal to the universal, so that listening we recall every failed relationship, a sense of how friends, family and lovers are forever destined to such split-apart fate. But as ever, love remains the penumbra that breaches the eclipse of this death, a lighter halo spreading out from the core, as Stevens sings liltingly: “my fossil is bright in the sun”.

As with many of The Greatest Gift’s songs, ‘John My Beloved’ ends simply, with just a quiet strum. The bombast that flashes briefly throughout—the chorus of ‘The Hidden River of My Life’, the moments of choral extravagance—is set alongside a favoured minimalism that translates moments of calm to genuine reverie, a space for contemplation. On the Helado Negro remix of ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, there’s an increasing urgency that flourishes the otherwise spare track, adorned with drum clicks and trilling keyboard tapers which draw out the sense of intimate revelation. When Stevens asks “how did this happen?” over dramatic strings and climactic beats on his own remix of ‘Drawn to the Blood’, the anguished questioning acquires a grander significance—beyond even the infinitude of personal hurt, calling in echo after echo. The 900X remix of ‘Fourth of July’ emphasises the song’s original haunting quality with subtle trap-like production and synth quivers that echo and bleed as if down an empty corridor, towards which all of us inevitably twirl, eking our varying trajectories in life. There’s the slowed-down effect of an elegiac story held in suspense, one which eventually drifts into the oceanic declaration: “we’re all gonna die”, held over swooning synths and tinny drum loops that punctuate, bewilder, drag us out through sweeter piano shivers. The famous line which unites everyone in morbid relief here acquires new shades of nuance, opening a wound in the world where we might slip through at the end without complaint. The remix is a sort of coming to terms, an attentive and respectful exploration of someone else’s grief. Somehow, the painful sentiment manages to sound just simply, deliciously cool.

To hear Stevens announce ‘Carrie & Lowell’ on the opening of the song’s iPhone demo is to participate in a story of personal genesis: to prise apart the twisting vines of memory to find the strange Elysian garden, a “fairyland all around us”, in which childhood, loss and grief intertwine. The painful tale of his mother’s alcoholism and struggles with mental illness is delivered as wisps of light and shadow, meadowlarks and horseflies drunkenly flickering; there’s the inviting shade of “Cottage Grove”, Stevens’ voice straining towards an emotive falsetto. In this “Season of hope (after the flood)”, we’re able to reside awhile in a space of wistful tranquility, where suffering sits quiet in the plains of originary experience. It’s not easy to brush up so close to such songs, as an already scarce production is excoriated for the tender skin of an early demo. But somehow the effect of listening to these early versions, retrospectively and after the fact of Carrie & Lowell itself, feels necessary. A caressing attentiveness to entangled emotion, a making peace with the impossibility of grief’s full resolution.

A case might be made for viewing The Greatest Gift as the survival guide for Carrie & Lowell, the extraneous slices of diary, of interpretative light, a selection of new angles on a forever swelling story. The title track, ‘The Greatest Gift’, encapsulates in its slim two minutes the spiritual purpose of embarking on such poignant journeys, of again exposing the cuts that won’t quite heal. Of getting up onstage over and over to perform these songs, of offering them to the world in a whole new record. It isn’t a masochistic act of enforced catharsis, nor a commercial ploy to cream the success of a career-defining album. It’s an extension of empathy, plain and true; the simple revelation that what ameliorates the cruelties of existence is the selfless act of loving unconditionally, of appreciating the quotidian things that bring light to our darkest places. Like most of Stevens’ work, you can take the message religiously, but its impulse leans also towards a general sense of humanitarian embrace, a shedding of sadness and shame for the sake of true relation:

Praise the mountain and the rain
All the gifts that still remain
But the greatest gift of all
And the law above all laws

Is to love your friends and lovers
To lay down your life for your brothers
As you abide in peace
So will your delight increase

And by sharing with us these understated yet complex remixes, these sensitive demos, personal ephemera and precious outtakes, Stevens reveals that empathy’s best trait is its sense of process, pursuit: the act of reaching out beyond yourself; not for some gain but merely for the shared sake of love itself—love for the art, the story, and for each other. This is a safe place, luminous and amazing, where I’d quite like to stay awhile, silent and listening.

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‘The Greatest Gift’ is released on November 24th

You can buy it here

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